24 November 2002
In terms of equipment design and philosophy, I am an audio minimalist. I think the more circuitry a signal has to pass through, the more likely it will be corrupted. I am wary of strange tweaks and expensive gadgets; I think there are a lot of con artists in the hi-fi industry.
Unfortunately, simpler does not always mean prettier, and you will not find my components in the Modern Museum of Art, as you will with some other, magnificent looking gear. I guess I'll just have to listen with the lights out!
In my system, the music starts with a Meridian 508.24 CD player. I also had my eye (or ear) on the Wadia 861, Mark Levinson 39, Electrocompaniet, and Elgar/Purcell dCS (nice but pricey). I also have a Micromega Stage 6 CD player with Sennheiser HD580 headphones in my study for intimate and quiet listening. The Micromega produces luscious sound when it works (!).
I also own a BK TS-108 tuner. I had a Magnum Dynalab FT-11 for a while, but it was horrible. It suffered from "station drift," meaning that it would drift off a station a few seconds after tuned, no matter how strong the signal. I sent it back to the factory three times in five years to get it recalibrated. I got rid of it the fourth time this happened. Anyway, FM radio is not a hi-fi medium, and I look forward to digital radio one of these days.
My preamp is a Pass P and my amps are Pass O monoblocks, which are a good combo together. The preamp is the most passive sounding line preamp I have heard. I thought of running a Wadia 861 or Levinson 39 directly to the amps, but actually think the preamp sounds better. I guess I'm not such a minimalist after all.
The Pass Aleph O monoblocks are pure Class A, single ended MOSFET amplifiers, which can easily heat up the room. They deliver 150 WPC into 4 ohms. Nelson Pass is famous for his simple and symmetrical circuit topology, which sound glorious (or rather, don't sound like anything). These are great amps if you can get them (they're now discontinued).
Lastly are the gargantuan Dunlavy SC-IV speakers (the original version and not the SC-IV A). Despite their oversized appearance, I think these are the best sounding speakers under $10k. They have no real flaw sonically and they do everything well. The Vifa drivers are quick for the transients, they have mini-monitor like imaging yet a broad sound stage, and Dunlavy's are famously time-coherent. They also use sealed cabinets, which (I think) produce more natural sounding bass, especially for acoustic instruments. Unfortunately that means that also have less bass extension than most (about 30-35Hz), which is a problem. Those last 15 Hz matter!
I am strongly considering upgrading to the Dunlavy's bigger brother, the SC-V. I just wish they didn't look like coffins. However, I would also like to hear Eggleston Andra, Genesis 300 and Sonus Faber Amati speaker (if only I could find some to listen to!). These are radically different speakers than Dunlavy.
My system is wired together with custom made balanced silver interconnects (including a 13 meter run from preamp to amp). The speaker cable is Dunlavy's own, and I use an AC line conditioner for the preamp, CD player and tuner.
Until I get my own listening room, the WAF factor remains a reality. However, my wife is extraordinarily tolerant; she recognizes "audiophilia nervosa" as a clinical disease, which results in less questioning. Actually, I have an extremely generous wife and two cats (Tosca and Lakme) and we all listen to Mahler on the couch (true!). However, the cats don't like Wagner.
Short of serious room treatments, I think we have made the most of our living/ listening room (see primitive drawing). Fortunately, it is not a pure rectangle as one side is a bay window, the other side opens to a foyer, and the back wall opens to the dining room. I know it's confusing.
Dunlavy also recommends that the speakers be placed on the long side of the wall and not the short (which is what most folks do). This works surprisingly well (at least for Dunlavy's). Also, my wife is an Oriental rug collector, so silk rugs abound everywhere. Now, send in the harem!
Even more important than the hardware is the software to me. I have over 6000 CDs, almost all of them classical. I would make the leap to vinyl but have not because: the cost of the equipment, LP maintenance, and finding LPs of performances I want in perfect condition. As soon as I hear a snap, crackle or pop, the aural illusion is over. Also, in my opinion, not all LPs sound better than all CDs.
I used to be a classical music and opera critic but quit because who likes a critic? Not surprisingly, I listen to 95% classical music and 5% everything else. However, the "Classical Music" category is rather broad. My CD collection spans a millennium of music, from 10th century plainchant to late 20th century in all variety and genre.
To recalibrate my ears, I try to attend a concert every other week, which often makes me long for my stereo! (I can no longer tolerate coughs, whispers, fidgety kids and other rude audience behaviors).
Hmmm test CDs, there are so many to choose. Well I suppose I might wander into a stereo store armed with:
-Saint-Saens, "Organ" Symphony No.3, movement 4 (track 4), Berlin Philharmonic, Levine, Deutsche Gramophone 419617
Sean's comments about his System:
AA: "Sean, how would you describe your system's sound?"
SS: "Neutral to a fault: you can really hear bad recordings and components. Some may find it bright." "
AA: "Do you think there is room for improvement?"
SS: "Yes. Full bass extension and better room treatment."
AA: "Have you got plans for upgrading?"
SS: "Yes. I hope to upgrade the speakers in the next 12 months, probably to Dunlavy SC-Vs."